Monday, January 17, 2011

The Old Plank Road

Crossing Imperial County – Stop #7

Red sand, white sand, take your choice in the Algodones Dunes of Imperial County, or what off roaders loosely call Glamis. The reddish sands of northeast portion are stunning and the subject of countless commercial photo shoots. The caddy however is headed south out of Holtville to the interstate and the white stuff at Gray’s Well.
Grandfather on the harmonica

“It was back in ’17 and I was moving to California for good,” my grandfather said. “And I thought being chased by an Indian gang in Arizona was an adventure, but the strangest thing was the miles of wooden plank road they’d put over the desert sand dunes as we tried to stay on the narrow planks with the wind trying to sweep us away.” It was a great story but his photos indicate that he came to California well north of there through Needles. Most likely his plank road trips were done when he came out to camp and prospect, panning the western banks of the Colorado River in following years. Sand dunes did prove to be a nemesis for him as on two occasions in Saudi Arabia, he stranded Aramco red company Fords deep in the open desert for days, to be luckily rescued by caravans.

From the ‘Landmarks of Imperial County’ album booklet:
From 1914 to 1927 the plank road along with the new bridge over the Colorado at Yuma provided a faster route to Phoenix from San Diego than Los Angeles. Though they'd hang a tire off a pole so you could see the turnouts, fistfights would still break out over right-of-way. In spite of the hardships, some people enjoyed the adventure and would come just to ride across and picnic at Gray's Well.  Children loved the bumpy ride. When engineers determined that the high sand hills could support the weight of concrete and asphalt they began construction of a two-lane road over the dunes in 1926.

Plaque Inscription:
This unique plank road, seven miles long, was the only means early motorists had of crossing the treacherous Imperial sand dunes. The 8-by-12-foot sections were moved with a team of horses whenever the shifting sands covered portions of the road. Double sections were placed at intervals to permit vehicles to pass.
Location: Algodones Sand Dunes County Rest Area, South side of I-8 (P.M. 77.4), 18 miles West of Winterhaven.   Note: Plaque was removed from rest area and is on South side of Gray's Well Road, 3.3 miles West of intersection with I-8, 18 miles West of Winterhaven.  At the plaque site are examples of the plank road.
Google maps: 32.710282,-114.92424
Plank Road is 38 miles from Tecolote Rancho

Here’s a link to a video of the song:


Out in the desert where the Vulture flies, there's an ocean of sand so high
Goes in length nearly 50 miles, and stretches nearly 7 miles wide

The hard winds blow like driven snow, and grit gets into your eyes
And the sand it drifts like waves at sea, and there ain't no place to hide

Folks needed to cross with their automobiles, to drive around it was too slow
So over the top like a wooden snake, that's where they put the
Old Plank Road

Chorus -
Old Plank Road
was mighty chancy, and the
Old Plank Road
was thin
Eight feet wide from side to side, when will this wooden road end?
Thumpin' and a-bumpin' shakin up an down, rattle like your shakin' up a can
On the other side things do subside, daddy can we take the road again?

In 1916 they built the old road, out of seven miles of wooden crossties
Held together with bars of steel, for the cars and trucks to ride

You may ask yourself what did they do, when a car would come the other way
Every 1000 feet they put in a turnout, so you could scoot aside and get away

There's a story 'bout the man in an eastbound car,
so stubborn he refused to yield
20 westbound cars stuck on the road, they went and got his automobile

They picked it up and put him in the sand, and the westbound cars got by
Picked it up again and put it on the road,
and waved a not too pleasant good bye

  If you're crossing the desert by old Gray's well, out on interstate eight
Take a look around at the
Old Plank Road
before the sand takes it all away

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